China's abstention from a United Nations resolution condemning the chemical attack in Syria is the most significant sign yet of warmer ties between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump after they met last week.
China, which has since 2011 joined Russia to veto six UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, abstained from a vote Wednesday on a U.S.-led proposal criticizing last week's chemical weapons attack. The move left Russia — Syrian President Bashar Assad's chief ally — as the only veto-wielding council member to oppose the resolution.
The vote shows that China's president appears intent to build on the rapport Trump says the two leaders established in their first meeting at the U.S. leader's Florida resort. His unilateral decision to launch almost 60 cruise missiles on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the attack has raised concerns in Asia about a similar strike against North Korea, a Chinese ally.
A gesture of 'considerable goodwill'
Shi Yinhong, a foreign affairs adviser to China's cabinet and director of Renmin University's Center on American Studies in Beijing, called the abstention a gesture of "considerable goodwill" to Trump. China has opposed military action against Assad's government since Syria's civil war began, urging a political solution instead.
"It shows Xi desires to have a good relationship with Trump, but it could come at the expense of undermining ties with Russia," Shi said. "It's a signal of willingness to cooperate more on the international stage, especially on North Korea's nuclear program."
Trump asks for Xi’s help on N. Korea
Trump's conversations with Xi played a role in China's decision to abstain, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In a statement explaining the vote, China's UN ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said that parts of the resolution required revision, without elaborating.
Trump told reporters he's pushing Xi to pressure North Korea to abandon development of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of striking the U.S., a program that has also alarmed American allies in Japan and South Korea. Tensions are mounting amid evidence that North Korea is ready to conduct a sixth nuclear bomb test in defiance of UN sanctions.
"President Xi wants to do the right thing," Trump said at a White House press conference Wednesday with Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. "I think he wants to help us with North Korea."
Meeting led to apparent friendship
Both the White House and China's state media have touted the personal bond forged during the roughly 18 hours the two leaders spent together last week, including when Trump's five-year-old granddaughter demonstrated her Chinese language skills for Xi. The senior administration official credited Trump's grandchildren with having a big impact on the relationship.
Trump's threats to challenge China on trade, North Korea and Taiwan risked upending the sensitive diplomatic balance between the world's two largest economies. Chinese officials worked for weeks behind-the-scenes to build ties with Trump and his family, before a February phone call between the two leaders in which he reaffirmed long-standing U.S. policy on Taiwan. That led to last week's summit.
Trump's deal with China
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published earlier Wednesday, Trump said he offered to ease trade pressure on China in exchange for help dealing with its unruly neighbor. China helped North Korea fight a U.S.-led coalition to a stalemate in the Korean War and remains the isolated nation's principal trading partner.
"You want to make a great deal? Solve the problem in North Korea," Trump said, noting such a solution would be "worth having" a trade deficit with China. In the same interview, he said his administration wouldn't formally accuse the country of manipulating its currency to gain a trade advantage, retreating from a core campaign promise.
China fears fallout from conflict
China opposes even limited U.S. military action against its ally and neighbor, which risks dragging both sides into a broader conflict and send refugees clambering toward its border. In a call with Trump on Wednesday, Xi reaffirmed China's belief that talks were the only way to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, according to state media.
The U.S. sent an aircraft carrier battle group into the area this week amid speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might conduct another nuclear test to mark his grandfather's birthday on Saturday. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during an appearance on ABC's "This Week" that the strike on Syria sent a message to Pyongyang, while adding that the administration had "no objective to change the regime in North Korea."
China considering what to do
The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper has indicated a willingness in the Chinese government to support stronger measures against North Korea. The Trump administration is considering tougher economic sanctions, including an embargo on oil supplies to North Korea, flight bans, cargo interception and punishment on Chinese banks doing business with North Korea, Reuters reported Thursday, citing unidentified U.S. officials.
Zhou Qi, the director of Tsinghua University's National Strategy Institute in Beijing, said it was logical for China to do more to curb Kim's nuclear program if actions were taken within the UN framework.
"The willingness to cooperate with the new U.S. government has been quite overt," she said. "There's plenty of cooperative space between Washington and Beijing as long as Kim continues to pursue its nuclear program."